By: Amanda Froelich
Warning: The following story contains graphic images and may be disturbing to some readers.
It’s one of the oldest professions in the world. And though the act of selling one’s body is frowned upon in my societies, doing so is still viewed as work in areas of Bangladesh, one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution remains legal.
In the district of Tangail, one will find the Kandapara brothel, which is the oldest and second largest brothel in the country, reports The Independent. The area and its purpose have existed for the last 200 years. In 2014, however, the Kandapara brothel was destroyed. As a result, many women didn’t know where to go. So, with the help of local NGOs, it was restarted once again.
Recently, photojournalist Sandra Hoyn traveled to the “brothel district” and documented what life is like inside the walled city. Food stall, tea shops, and street vendors can be found in the narrow streets, and the city is said to have its own rules and hierarchies of power which differ greatly from mainstream society. One example Hoyn shared is that the women are both weak and powerful.
Girls who enter the industry, usually at age 12 to 14, are labeled as “bonded.” The women who work in the legal industry often come from poor families and, sometimes, may be victims of trafficking. They have no freedom or rights – they belong to a ‘madam’. For at least the first five years (on average), a bonded girl is not allowed to go outside and receives no money for her work. When she had paid her debts, she may then become an independent sex worker. At that point, she is allowed to refuse customers and is able to keep her own money. Because the women are socially stigmatized outside of the brothel district, many choose to remain and continue supporting their families from afar with what is earned.
Hoyn told NextShark:
“At the beginning, it was difficult to get access to the women and customers. Some customers didn’t want to be in the photographs, especially those with a rich family. But other customers didn’t care at all about it. Some told me they want to “refresh their mind” inside the brothel and there is nothing wrong with it, so why should they hide?”
“Some girls hide their face and didn’t want to tell their stories, others have been very open and wanted to tell about their life,” she added.
The price of the service depends on the age and beauty of each girl, as well as the quality of the rooms. A Kandapara sex worker might earn between 1000-2000 Taka ($11 – $22) daily, which equates to about 300 Taka ($3) per customer.
“Most women have the dream to earn enough money in the brothel to buy their own house outside when they are old, and they want to not be dependent on men. They want to earn enough money to give their children a good school education at least. They want them to have a better future than they did,” explained Hoyn.
“Many women have their ‘boyfriends,’ or regular customers who pay them. I know one woman who has turned down the marriage proposals of her most faithful client because she doesn’t trust that he will let her keep her money. She’d rather maintain her independence as a sex worker.”
“The brothel is like its own microcosm, it is a city in a city.”
“Officially, [sex workers] must be 18 years old, but most of them are underage.”
“Some of them take steroids like Oradexon, a drug used by farmers to fatten livestock, to look older and healthier.”
“The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel at the beginning as a bonded girl, usually from 12 to 14 years.”
“Most of them have sad stories — but they are really strong, at least outwardly. I admire that they manage their lives under these circumstances and do not give up.”
“They are not just survivors or victims, they are fighting and enjoying their life in their own way.”
“When the women have free time, they danced and laughed together.”
“They are joking with each other, kidding the customers. “
“The girls are very lively and cheerful. Often they forget their sadness. They still have dreams.”